Keynote Speech @ SCHOOLS FOR EVERYONE Conference – Huddersfield 10/3/2018
KEYNOTE ADDRESS –
Hello Everyone. I am delighted to be here.
My name is Nicholas McInerny. I am a writer. For TV, for Radio and for Stage. I am a teacher. I am a traveller. I am a dancer. I am a Skier. I am a concert-goer, a theatre-goer. I am a reader. Most recently I’ve been a Producer, and a film-maker. Very soon I shall be a Project Manager for a Radio Drama Festival. I am a board member for a Charity that works with Street Kids in Sierra Leone. I am Co-Chair of a committee for the Writer’s Guild, my union. My guilty pleasure is to binge watch a Netflix or Amazon series all weekend. One day I even hope to be watching something of mine on Netflix. You have to dream
I am all these things, which would obviously feature on any CV, as part of any job application. Well maybe not the binge-watching thing. These are my passions, my experience, my achievements – those things about which I guess I am most proud.
Those things which tell you a story about me.
But do they?
They certainly don’t tell you the whole story. The real story. Maybe even the really interesting story.
Because my name is Nicholas McInerny. I am a father. I am a husband. And I am a Gay Dad.
It is a common experience of pretty much every LGTB+ person you meet, that they will tell you they don’t just Come Out the one time, but over and over again.
In fact pretty much when they are thrown into a new environment – a new job, a new role, meeting a whole new set of people – inevitably there comes a point when you mention your partner, or make some funny comment, or simply draw attention to yourself in such a way as to make it obvious, or invite a question. And once again you are – in some subtle or maybe not so subtle way – declaring yourself. Inwardly you can sigh with relief – thank God that’s over. Now we can move on.
When I came out – at 45 – (I’m 56 now, by the way) – I was married. More of that later – but when I came out – there very quickly came the point where I wish I’d had a card with all the essential details written on it that I could just hand out to all those people I met who – like discovering you had a terminal illness – were a fascinating mixture of curiosity and embarrassment, creating a kind of special awkwardness only the British are capable of.
Instead of a Loyalty card, a kind of Sexuality card. Five answers to the five questions you are asked most when Coming Out.
This is made even more complex nowadays because in some respects the debate has moved on. Coming Out as gay seems marvellously old fashioned, as Transgender issues increasingly take centre stage, perhaps an inevitable result of a social process of liberalisation which seeks to become more and more inclusive, which – in it’s best manifestation, seeks to become more and more understanding of the complexities of human sexuality and gender.
Now even – we are told – we must check preferred pronouns when we introduce ourselves. He, She, They. So you can how that special awkwardness I mentioned has acquired even more dimensions, how we can ‘get it wrong’ in all sorts of new ways.
However, Coming Out has a peculiar status doesn’t it. It’s not quite like admitting to an affair, because that automatically invites judgement, doesn’t it – depending on who you tell. It’s not quite like confessing to addictive behaviour, which hopefully elicits sympathy and perhaps even some empathy – there but for the Grace of God…. or even advice. It’s clearly a rite of passage for Gay people, but one we are destined to repeat over and again.
In a sense the perfect Coming Out moment should provoke a roll of the eyes and a chorus of ‘Oh Darling, we’ve known you gay for ages, we were just waiting for you to tell us!’
‘Love You. Mean It. Don’t Change’ – and a huge hug. Normal service is resumed.
Because of course Coming Out is an event that changes everything and changes nothing.
Telling the world who you are is simply to arrive at the place you never left anyway. Coming Out is – well, coming home?
However, even that journey can be a rocky one. Look at me – on one level I was genuinely scared of Coming Out, even at 45. Even then I worried about what people would think of me – married, with children, living a successful life as a writer in a small village in Oxfordshire where – believe you me – people knew your business.
A kind of goldfish bowl.
And I think that fear was ingrained. I think that fear was instilled in me at a very early age, and reinforced continuously as I grew up, in a series of worlds both immediate – school, peer group, family – and more distant – social attitudes, the media, politics, even on one level the arts – that were, to a small boy, overwhelming.
And you always carry these early experiences with you, don’t you? They become the rule by which you measure everything. They become the means by which you understand the world, and so if they are born out of exclusion, or intolerance, then they seem to exert an even more sinister force. The stronger the feeling of being left out, the stronger the desire to fit in. Nothing is more desirable than the thing you can’t have.
So I’d like to take you back to three moments in my life, to try and explain a little bit about that Story – and how that shaped my journey to be my proper – my authentic – real self.
A Gay Dad and husband, if you like.
And I hope in so doing, I might strike a chord with some of you – both of similarity and difference. Because, whilst each of our Coming Out stories are so individual and different – yet they are still like threads coming together to make a wonderful, thick, powerful strong rope. Every thread makes its own vital contribution. That means you – and you – and you – and you.
A famous writer once said, ‘Nothing is so distant as the recent past’ but I am only talking about 40 years ago, although long before many of you were born.
I am fifteen years old. Born into the dullest of dull Dormitory towns in Hertfordshire – Bishops Stortford, famous for being the birthplace of that terrible old Colonialist, Rhodes, I have been at my Boarding School for the past four years.
I went when I was 11 years old. This school is ancient, positively Jurassic – over four hundred years old. It was founded in 1553, by Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and is called CHRISTS HOSPITAL.
It’s a strange school. On the one hand it is complete and utter Hogwarts – originally in London it moved down to West Sussex in 1902 and is set in 1200 Acres. There is a Quadrangle, and a Big School, and a Chapel. Instead of Griffindor and Slytherin the Houses are called Maine and Peele and Thornton. Instead of Quidditch we played rugby and hockey and cricket.
It is a single sex school – 850 boys and a staff of around 150 teachers. The only women who work there are the Matrons, or the wives. Although clearly built around the principles of the Public-School system – it is Means tested. That means over 40% of the pupils pay nothing – no fees – or receive scholarships. So the social makeup of the school is far more varied than even the local State schools. A lot of children from disadvantaged backgrounds – my two closest friends both come from Single parent families. I can’t claim there were huge numbers of black or Asian kids – but there were some. For someone like myself, who came from a very monocultural background, this was a revelation.
Like all schools at that time – the 1970s – it created its own hermetically sealed universe, as separate from the outside world as you could imagine. Like all schools at that time – the universe it created was pretty damn brutal.
JK Rowling has said the reason she set the Harry Potter novels at a Boarding school is precisely because of the absence of parents. This gives the children a freedom that would otherwise not have. There was a freedom at Christs Hospital – CH – that is difficult to describe to anyone who has not been through that schooling system, but it was freedom born out of adversity and forged in a determination to humiliate the Masters, since they represented the system
I’ve always believe that to really understand how power works in this country you need to have personal experience of one of its institutions – the army, for example – or the Church, or a school like Christs Hospital. Even at the tender age of 11 I understood I was being taught a powerful life lesson.
But from the age of 11 to about 14 we were also vile human beings – selfish, insecure, aggressive – and treated each other terribly. If we all burned with the desire to humiliate Masters, what better practise than humiliating each other? And nothing deserved more ritualistic humiliation that any pupil suspected of being gay.
I was a contradiction. Physically big and strong, and yet – apparently – effeminate. Part of the rite of passage of arriving at CH – new boys were called ‘Squits’ – was – like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter – the anointment of the nick-name. Put briefly, in the first month of being away from home for the very fist time, with all the attendant feelings of vulnerability and loneliness, was the perfect time to discover a particular weakness of somebody and construct an especially hurtful nick-name around it. One boy, for example, had diarrhoea one night and failed to make it to the toilets in time. He was for the rest of his seven years at CH known as ‘Crapper Anderson’.
There was an advert for Detergent at that time in which a woman called ‘Madge’ demonstrated how clean dishes could also mean smooth hands – ‘For hands that do dishes can be as soft as your face, with mild green Fairy Liquid’. You see – I remember it as if it were only yesterday – the reason being that my nick-name became ‘Madge’.
‘Madge’ shouted down the corridor. ‘Madge’ jeered at me whilst I cleaned my shoes. ‘Madge’ even on the Rugby pitch, – ‘Pass the ball, Madge’
Some nick-names are affectionate but not this. This was meant to hurt. To hurt and hurt and hurt. And it was incredibly successful. Even now it is the one aspect of my years at CH that still triggers a real sense of pain for me. Even now I feel embarrassed to have to admit to it. I didn’t want my parents to know, I was desperate to keep it a secret. But small boys know how to twist the knife. I am the eldest of four boys, and when my second brother came to CH, guess what? He inherited my nick-name. He became ‘Madge’ too. This was my fault, I couldn’t protect him from that. Imagine how that felt.
So how did I respond? Well of course – being 11 and about to tumble into a rage of hormones – I hated it. And of course, being big and strong I would go into a rage and hit my tormentor. Or stamp on his glasses. Or push him down the stairs.
It was like some Public-school version of the Hulk.
But of course the other reason I responded in the way I did was because – deep down – I was struggling with my sexuality. For example, I loved playing Rugby and was a very useful second row, but heavens did I have a crush on the Rugby Captain – John Cullen. See, I even remember his name
So when I thumped someone I am sure it was my way of trying to prove to myself that I didn’t have those feelings, that I could by force of will or whatever, beat the gayness out of me.
Because of course being Gay at CH was social suicide. It was to invite utter and uniform scorn upon yourself. In the whole of my seven years, there was only two boys I can remember who were ‘out’ in the way we understand. One – Allan Baber – and see, I remember his name too! – was caught up in a scandal when he systematically offered sexual favours to practically everyone in his House. You could say his commitment to the cause made him extravagant with his offers – but when the scandal broke, none of the boys who took advantage of him, suffered. Only he did. The double standard of what constitutes gay sex was made very clear – a double standard who can see repeated in other cultures which are homophobic.
We all laughed and joked and pointed the finger at poor Allan because he had been caught, poor chap. Many of us were arranging our own trysts late at night, or in the local woods, or wherever. In fact I’m sure those who were having the most fun were also making sure Allan took all the heat – a diversionary tactic. And in a strange way it made him important, it gave him a role at the school. He was a somebody, even if infamous – and that mattered in an environment where only those good at games or likely to get into Oxbridge seemed to matter. What was it Oscar Wilde said – ‘there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about’
I remember one half term, around 1975, which I spent Caravanning with my family in the New Forest, in which I wandered around absolutely convinced I was gay, and desperately upset. My mother was conventionally homophobic, and my father conventionally distant. There was no-one I could talk to, I felt incredibly alone.
Alone. One of my best friends – Paul – said to me, ‘You can’t go through seven years at CH without a long dark night of the soul. You realise something. You realise that you are on your own.’
That’s one of the life lessons being at a boarding school taught me. If you are lucky, like I was – you make friends for life. Both Paul and Tony I have known for over forty years – and that friendship I am convinced was forged in the brutal atmosphere of a 1970s school.
You also learn how to deceive, how to hide real feelings and how to lie. To survive that environment, it is compulsory – but for a teenager struggling with his sexual identity, the ease with which you can lie to others must reflect the ease with which you can lie to yourself.
But a lie is also a form of self-invention, even an act of creativity. And there undoubtedly was at CH, an extraordinary sense of creative possibilities. We were all – for example – musically obsessed. David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder and Talking Heads and Ian Dury and Michael Jackson and Blondie and The Clash and Roxy Music all represented an imaginative escape and freedom. Bowie especially, in his alien otherness and declaration of bisexuality, offered an opportunity for imagining a different world, and a different version of oneself. I remember how jealous I was, when half the school managed to get tickets for his STAGE tour, and a kind of hysteria gripped the Senior Houses.
For example I remember exactly where I was when I first head I FEEL LOVE by Donna Summer – an iconic track in music and in gay identity.
As I became more senior I would increasingly take liberties and bunk off school to see bands. Remember, this was the age of the Sex Pistols and we were all nice middle-class boys looking to be angry about something. Creeping off to see Paul Weller and the Jam felt like a real act of rebellion.
The other thing that happened was the School built an extraordinary theatre, where I was lucky to see National Companies like the RSC, Ballet Rambert, Kent Opera – Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Michael Clark.
Here was a world beyond ours. Here was a way – through performance – to explore identity. Here was the lie that told the truth.
I am standing in the bathroom, staring at the mirror. My wife and I have asked our two children – twelve and nine – to come downstairs. We have something important to tell them.
My mouth is dry and suddenly I need to go to the loo again. Again. I know it’s a stress thing, but this moment alone is important, in fact it’s vital, I need to collect my thoughts, I need to splash water over my face and really look….
‘You don’t have to do this. You know, your life isn’t so bad, your marriage is certainly far from bad, you have a nice life, a comfortable life, a good life. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to sit your darling children down and tell them you’re gay’
Both my Wife and I were married when we were 28. Before the wedding, there was the compulsory jitters. One night I think I got drunk and wrote my wife a letter in which I said I thought I was – at least – bisexual.
This wouldn’t have come as a surprise to her. We had talked about it before, but in vague terms – as part of that process when you first meet someone and start to experience that powerful sense of intimacy and want to – I don’t know – unburden yourself? Be totally honest? She admitted she was attracted to androgynous men – a previous partner had had relationships with other men.
I think one of the reasons I was attracted to her was because she was a manifestly good person. She made me feel better about myself and want to be a better person. We had two wonderful children and a good life – which we had worked hard to achieve. Having a family changed the dynamic of our partnership in the way it must do in any marriage – we were now a Firm in which we often had defined but complementary roles.
Looking back now I can see that my own inner sense of unease about who I was and what I was made my wife my confessor – even through the slow breakup of our marriage I would feel the need to tell about some of the things I had done and was doing in an implicit plea for forgiveness. She quite rightly grew impatient and then angry with me – whilst simultaneously I knew it postponed the final separation. Even a confession creates its own intimacy.
By the time we sat down the children we have proceeded along a path in which we had consciously tried to be totally honest with each other. In fact, ‘Radical Honesty’ was the name of one of the books we had read – an ideal which I am still not totally convinced is healthy. Imagine being totally honest with your partner about everything? Aren’t you inviting chaos and upset into your life?
However, another book we had read – Mating in Captivity by Elizabeth Perel – had said ‘Adultery doesn’t kill marriages, lying about it does’. And so both my wife and I were trying to walk that line between proper disclosure and unnecessary detail.
With my wife’s permission, I had been allowed to see other men. Specifically I was seeing somebody regularly. In America this is called a CLOSED LOOP relationship, where the wife allows the husband to have male-to-male contact as a way of maintaining some stability in the marriage, which is particularly important when there are children involved. The CLOSED LOOP is monogamous, and usually the wife and boyfriend have met. Like any alternative arrangement, it is constantly under review and subject to huge pressures – amongst them feelings of jealousy, insecurity, exclusion. To successfully maintain a CLOSED LOOP is a huge effort, and many see it as a transitional stage – to allow the husband to fully acknowledge his homosexuality and his wife to come to terms with it.
The really important thing is choice. I felt my honestly allowed her options – to make choices about our relationship and what she wanted to do. Withholding important information was disrespectful – and once respect goes in a marriage, you are doomed. The writing is really on the wall.
We had also been to see a Counsellor to talk through exactly how we should tell our children. She had advised us telling them both together so that would be less chance of misunderstandings, and that we should tell them at the beginning of the summer holiday so they have the whole six weeks to process it. This is excellent advice.
The Counsellor pointed out that unconsciously the children may well be picking up any tension and unease between us – although ironically I had been far more attentive and careful – probably out of guilt. However, what was absolutely clear now and even more so in retrospect was the important of modelling good parenting. We had a responsibility to do this well, in case our Children were faced with problems in their relationships.
For a long while I thought I could have my cake and eat it. I wanted my lover and I wanted my wife. I wanted my life too. I certainly wanted my children to be happy – and I think I somehow confused that with the status quo. In many respects my nineteen years of marriage had been a great success but only – as I came to realise – at the expense of my identity, my dreams, my hopes
It was really brought home to me when I went out to dinner with a fellow writer on The Bill – I was by then writing for them regularly.
Her name was Jaden Clark. She was gay herself and incredibly insightful. She was also from around this part of the world.
After a couple of glasses of wine, she leant into me and said ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, Nicholas, but there’s nothing of you in your scripts’
She was right. I had repressed so much of my personality to fit in, to do a good job, be a good father, a good husband, a good man – I had even lost the reason why I wanted to write in the first place. Whatever creative buzz I had, whatever I felt I wanted to share with the world, had been hidden behind a reliable professionalism.
My friends later told me that during this period of my life it was as if I had withdrawn into my shell and become someone else – a facsimile of myself. I was aware of this reticence, but I figured it was worth it to continue to be that good person I so wanted to be, at the expense of everything else.
I was trying to protect myself against a truth. I was trying to protect my wife against that truth. I was trying to protect my children too. You could say that everything that subsequently happened – my slow process of unravelling and unwinding, was either an act of self-preservation or one of growing selfishness. I think probably it was a mixture of the two.
As my dear friend, Sarah, once said – when the plane loses compression and drops out of the sky, and those oxygen masks fall out of the ceiling, you are supposed to put on yours first – otherwise you are no use to anybody else.
Another friend told me recently that when he suspected he was gay and hadn’t told anyone, he would go out into the woods in the dead of night and find a big strong, gorgeous tree and stand by it. He would reach out and feel its strength, its age, its sense of eternity, and then shout out into the cold night air.
‘I am Gay. I am Gay!’ practising the words that would make it sound real. Make it sound really REAL!
‘I AM GAY’!
September 13th 2014.
Today is my wedding day – my second one. Six months after the Marriage Equality Act came into law my fiancé, Jordan, and I are tying the knot at Wandsworth Town Hall. We have decided to splash out and go for the more expensive Registry Office. It has a number of Art Deco prints on the wall, and room for fifty of my closest friends.
Amongst them will be family, potential in-laws who have flown in from the USA (Jordan is American), ex-lovers and dear friends. They are as extravagantly dressed as I would expect. There is a great deal of leather and lace.
My dear Friend Rhidian – whom I entrusted to print out my vows when my printer broke down – is late. He is going to arrive on his Motorbike in a morning suit and fake eyelashes. My dear Friend Romola will also arrive late and – in an attempt to slip in unnoticed – will managed to collapse over a couple of chairs in the backrow. Her teenage Daughter, Natasha, will look on with utter disdain.
There will be a Camera Link so that those who couldn’t make it from the States can watch – and a permanent recording made. The Registrar will be welcoming and inclusive, and seamlessly lead us through the service. I will read my vows seamlessly of course, whilst Jordan stumbles over his, overcome with emotion. It will be an extraordinary occasion, marked with a faint air of unreality.
Six months ago, this wasn’t possible. And six months from now it will be unremarkable.
Later, at the reception, there will be a huge balloon display in the shape of a heart, with the words Bear and Wolf picked out in the middle – our nick-names for each other, and the ones we love hearing other people use.
I will read Andrew Marvell’s ODE TO HIS COY MISTRESS, and Rhidian will tell racey stories about how we met at Burning Man. Teenage boys will race around the room, submarining all the left-over drinks, in order to vomit copiously towards the end of the evening. The Magician – booked at a discount at the very last minute – will stay behind to flirt with the guests, leaving with several numbers. A cake the size of a football pitch – brought in a taxi by my super talented artistic friend, Homi, will be sliced up.
My daughter, Grace, will sing Gershwin – SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME’. My other daughter Hannah will DJ, followed by wild dancing during my Jordan’s Stepfather, Warren, seems to have his shirt off and is dancing with a group of bears.
And Jordan and I will surf the crowd, spilling out ‘thank you’ after ‘thank you’ and promising to return for longer conversations – yet completely failing to do so.
Earlier, I ask my dear Friends Tony and Sarah, to do a ritual.
They gather the 140 guests in a large circle, in the centre of which I stand with my husband, back to back.
Sarah asks everyone to take out their mobile phone and to check it is turned on.
Then Tony asks everyone to think of someone they know and love, and to send a short message of love to them. He invites the guests to be adventurous in their choice – perhaps a dear friend they haven’t spoken to in a while or family member who is far away, or even the person they fell out with over nothing but just haven’t quite found the time to make amends.
Sarah asks everyone to send their messages now…..
Jordan and I stand in the collective silence. There is an intense hush over the guests. A wisp of anticipation, like smoke in the air…
And then we hear the sound of one text message, then another, then another, then another. Chirrups and bleeps and those little idents that punctuate our lives with their intrusive chatter… but not something different, just for a moment…now little darts of love.
It is an utterly magical moment. The moment we knew we had created something special to share with everyone, that something that told the world something about US …..
It took me 52 years to get to that point, but I have no regrets. Each stage of my journey has been bound up with creativity, which I believe is genuinely interchangeable with love.
So…here is my thread. Come and add yours and let’s made that rope stronger and longer than ever.